If Bill Clinton was our first black President, as Toni Morrison once proclaimed, then Barack Obama may be our first woman President. […]
No, I'm not calling Obama a girlie President. But … he may be suffering a rhetorical-testosterone deficit when it comes to dealing with crises […]
What's her evidence for this lack of "rhetorical-testosterone"? Along with a lot of vague stuff about how Obama is "a chatterbox" who shares with "Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton" (!) the ability to "assume feminine communication styles effectively", the column includes exactly one relevant fact:
Obama's [oil spill] speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.
If you're not a regular reader, please take a few minutes to scan our last discussion of linguistic "analysis" from Paul Payack's Global Language Monitor ("Language guru runs with the journalistic pack", 6/17/2010). According to Mr. Payack, president Obama's address on the gulf oil spill was excessively "professorial" because its average sentence length was 19.8 words. I checked on president George W. Bush' post-Katrina speech, and found that its average sentence length was 23.5 words, suggesting either that Bush was even more "professorial" than Obama, or that Mr. Payack was full of it.
So what about those passives?
The first thing to say is that there isn't the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are "feminine". Women don't use the passive voice more than men, and among male writers, number of passive-voice constructions doesn't appear to have any relationship at all to real or perceived manliness. The "passive is girly" prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive, misinterpreted by people who in any case mostly wouldn't recognize the grammatical passive voice if it bit them on the leg. (See e.g. "When men were men, and verbs were passive", 8/4/2006; "How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing", 11/1/2006; "'Passive Voice' — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.", 3/12/2009.)
[And the idea that women are "passive" in a non-grammatical sense is an equally silly stereotype.]
Still, there's a point of fact here. Did president Obama's speech really have more passive-voice constructions than "any major presidential address this century"?
Getting a meaningful number for "percent passive-voice constructions" requires some definitions. What are we taking a percentage of: sentences? tensed clauses? all clauses? all constructions where voice could be varied? And what counts as passive? do get-passives, adjectival passives, passive-participle modifiers, etc., add to the total or not?
I'm not sure what definitions Paul Payack used. For some evidence that he's among those who don't have a clue what a passive-voice construction actually is, in the traditional grammatical sense, see Ben Zimmer's post "There will be passives", 11/7/2008. I don't have time this morning to try to figure out how Mr. Payack derived his passive percentages, if any information about this is available — I'll have more to say when I've looked into this further.
But I did just make a quick analysis of president George W. Bush's post-Katrina address to the nation. I count 142 sentences, 25 of which contained one or more passive-voice tensed verb constructions. That's 17.6%.
Doing the same thing with Barack Obama's post-oil-spill address, I count 135 sentences, 15 of which contain one or more passive-voice tensed verb constructions. That's 11.1%.
If instead I calculated the percentage of tensed verbs that are in the passive voice, or the percentage of voice-relevant constructions that are passive, I'd get somewhat different numbers. But I don't believe that any of these alternative calculations would rescue Mr. Payack's assertion, or Ms. Parker's little exercise in empirically vacuous meme-replication. She wrote:
We've come a long way gender-wise. Not so long ago, women would be censured for speaking or writing in public. But cultural expectations are stickier and sludgier than oil. Our enlightened human selves may want to eliminate gender norms, but our lizard brains have a different agenda.
Parker's lizard brain, I'm sorry to say, seems to have the agenda of promoting — with less than no evidence at all — one of the currently fashionable journalistic tropes about Obama.
[For some background that may help you to evaluate the credibility of Paul J.J. Payack as a linguistic analyst, see "There will be passives", 11/7/2008; "The million word hoax rolls along", 1/3/2009; "Forbes on neologisms, and the return of the million-word bait-and-switch", 4/23/2009; "The millionth word in English could be 'sucker'", 5/12/2009; "End times at hand", 6/6/2009.]
[Update, July 2 — On June 16, "admin" at Paul J.J. Payack's "Global Language Monitor" site posted an item "Obama Oil Spill Speech Echoes Elite, Aloof Ethos", which includes this:
The President’s first Oval Office address came in at a surprising high tenth-grade reading level, with some 13% passive constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address in this century. In political speaking, the passive voice is generally used to either deflect responsibility, or to have no particular ‘doer’ of an action.
The post seems to have been updated several times since June 16 — for instance, it includes a link to Kathleen Parker's column, using the curious link-text "Kathleen Parker’s ‘Empiracally Vacuous Meme-replication’".
But I could find no discussion of the methodology used to determine the "13% passive constructions", nor any information about what else counted as a "major presidential address this century", nor any data on what passive percentages Mr. Payack assigned to these other speeches.
A couple of years ago ("There will be passives", 11/7/2008), Ben Zimmer examined in detail Payack's assertion (picked up by CNN and others) that in the vice-presidential debate
Passive voice can be used to deflect responsibility; Biden used active voice when referring to Cheney and Bush; Palin countered with passive deflections.
Ben observes (following Gabe Doyle) that this was simply false: Gov. Palin didn't use a single passive-voice sentence in any relevant region of the transcript.
Ben also notes this passage from a CNN article about Obama's victory speech, where Mr. Payack cites a single example of "passive voice" — which isn't actually in the passive voice:
Though most of Obama's verbs were in the active voice, 11 percent of the sentences were in the passive voice, a dependable method of deflecting responsibility, Payack said. He cited Obama's "There will be setbacks and false starts" as an example.
"He's spreading the responsibility around," Payack said. "He didn't say, 'I will have setbacks. I will be wrong. I will make mistakes.' He used the passive voice for those types of constructions."
Lay discussions of the "passive" can tell us a lot about folk-linguistic beliefs (see, for instance, the treatment of "folk grammaticality" in Nancy Niedzielski and Dennis R. Preston's 1999 monograph Folk Linguistics, pp. 270ff.). But in the CNN article we have a self-styled "linguist" throwing around words like "passive" in a spectacularly uninformed fashion. We've set the bar pretty low if we're listening to an "expert" whose knowledge in his professed field of expertise wouldn't get him very far on "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?".
I could find nothing in the GLM's analysis of Obama's oil-spill speech, or indeed anywhere else on the GLM site, to suggest that Mr. Payack has now mastered grade-school grammar.]